Reviewed by Linda Hepworth
This powerful story traces the unlikely friendship which develops during the final year of high school between two teenage girls, neither of whom feels they either belong in, or is accepted by, their peer group. George has always felt like a misfit: she is overweight and rather masculine in appearance, attributes which attract constant bullying and teasing, causing her to find refuge during the day in the school library, then to seek the emotional release of self-harming in the privacy of her home. When
Sylvie joins the class in the final year of high school, George is immediately fascinated by this rather old-fashioned, ethereal character who wanders around, head in the clouds, apparently unconcerned about conforming to the norms of her peer group but is also someone who responds kindly to her. When Sylvie faces harassment by a group of sexually-predatory teenage boys, George feels compelled to intervene to protect her from harm. Their friendship becomes closer when Sylvie takes her to the antique shop owned by her father and, in the attic, tells her that whenever she touches any of the items she can hear the voices of the previous owners, telling her their sad stories. Sylvie is surprised that George can’t hear them, whilst George is amazed that Sylvie can, although she’s also concerned that this gift sometimes distresses her friend. When Sylvie goes to university she gradually changes and, inevitably, so too does their relationship, leaving George bereft and heartbroken as she struggles to deal with her unrequited love. She find some comfort in working in the antiques shop, where she and Sylvie’s father share an unexpressed grief at the loss of someone they love so deeply.
“Sylvie never called them ghosts, but that’s what they were” … from this opening sentence, I felt immediately drawn into this story, intrigued to discover how this apparently supernatural element would influence the story-telling. However, it quickly became clear that this was to be no traditional “ghost” story rather, it would explore how we are all shaped by our past experiences and losses, and how these continue to “whisper” to us throughout our lives. Through his exquisitely drawn characters, not just George and Sylvie but also all the peripheral ones, whose behaviour influenced how the girls’ friendship developed, and subsequently changed, the author took me on an emotionally-charged, often very disturbing journey. I’m reluctant to go into too much detail about this because I don’t want to spoil the wonderful subtlety and poignancy of the story-telling as it reveals the deeply-felt emotions of young women coming to terms with who they are, as well as their developing, often confusing, sexuality. I think that the shared, erotically-charged nature of the early months of George and Sylvie’s friendship, and how this changed, leaving George heart-broken and bereft, was handled with an impressive sensitivity and restraint by the author.
This emotional honesty and integrity extended to his exploration of some very dark themes, including self-harming, sexual violence, homophobia, bullying, suicidal thoughts. Although each of these was explored in a powerfully visceral way, at no point did I feel that there was anything gratuitously explicit about his portrayals – a difficult balance to achieve, but one which the author achieved in an admirably sensitive way.
The author’s characterisations were so evocative that I’m sure the voices of George and Sylvie will continue to whisper to me, ensuring that their stories will not be forgotten, instead acting as a powerful reminder of how our memories can conjure up our ghosts from the past. Sometimes these will be painful, but the good ones can offer hope, can enable us to gain strength from them and to use those insights to create a more optimistic future for ourselves. “Dear god, set me free from all the pain” a foreword quote from Aeschylus, serves as a reminder throughout the story that pain is part of living and cannot be avoided. It is particularly resonated throughout George’s story, capturing her moments of profound despair and her search for relief from her all-encompassing emotional pain. Does she achieve this? You’ll need to read the book to find out!
When I finished this book, I felt I was experiencing such an emotional-overload that I needed to take time to reflect on it before writing this review but, as I settle down now to do so, several days later, I feel I’m still reeling from the impact of this very powerful, poignant and profoundly sad story. I’m full of admiration for the author’s ability to create such multi-layered complexity within just fifty-three pages – a perfect demonstration of how the end result of less really can result in being so much more!
However, although short, this shouldn’t be seen as a fast-read because it encompasses a range of themes and emotions which encourage reflection. I recently listened to a talk by an author who spoke of how reading slowly and reflectively enables the “magic” in stories to happen in “the spaces in-between” which are thus created. J. Ashley-Smith’s eloquent prose, with not one word feeling wasted, encouraged me to constantly reflect on what I was reading and the magic did indeed happen. So, please don’t rush your reading of this story, allow time for the magic to happen for you too.
Personal read: 5 stars
Group read: 4 stars
With many thanks to Meerkat Press for an ARC of this story and the opportunity to read this very special story.
978-1-946154-48-4, Meerkat Press (Paperback) 9th June 2020